BMCR 2001.11.18

I Claudia II. Women in Roman Art and Society

, , I, Claudia II : women in Roman art and society. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000. xii, 179 pages : illustrations ; 28 cm. ISBN 0292743408

The study of women and gender is one of the fruitful new fields in Roman archaeology. By foregrounding the historical context of works of art and by asking new questions this inspiring field of research bridges the gap between archaeology and the written evidence and is of great interest to archaeologists, ancient historians and students of women’s history alike. I Claudia II is a good example of this recent trend. It is the sequel volume to I, Claudia. Women in Ancient Rome (reviewed in BMCR 98.6.3) by the same editors, which contains the catalogue of the likenamed exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery (1996) and five longer essays. The present volume publishes ten papers that were presented at two symposia held in connection with this exhibition in November 1996, most of them dealing with Rome and Italy in the imperial period. The papers, written by distinguished scholars, reflect current interests in the field and are mostly of high quality.

In their introduction to the volume (pp. 1-16) the editors, Diana Kleiner and Susan Matheson, stress the diversity of Roman women’s lives and the freedom and power they enjoyed in social, economic, religious and political life as compared to women in fifth-century Greece.1 As in I, Claudia. Women in Ancient Rome women’s achievements are emphasized here not the restrictions imposed upon their lives. Though much attention is paid to women’s domestic roles the authors contend that “it is too limiting to see Roman women only as wives and mothers” (p. 14). Throughout the essay the images of women in Roman art and the moral values conveyed by them play an important role.

The first paper on ‘Livia to Helena. Women in Power, Women in the Provinces’ (pp. 17-27) by Cornelius C. Vermeule III—an, as it seems, unrevised publication of his keynote lecture—is disappointing. It is a rather arbitrary list of women in the provinces who were called Claudia, and of famous Roman women, mainly from the imperial family, from Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, down to Helena, the mother of Constantine. Ignoring almost all modern studies of these women, the author uncritically retells the stories of their lives as found in the literary sources adding some illustrations mainly from coins. Leaving aside some factual errors (for instance, V. wrongly ascribes the fact that all daughters of Mark Antony were called Antonia to Antony’s lack of ‘imagination in the choice of names’, p. 17) this rambling paper is no more than a superficial survey of ‘great’ Roman women; it may well have served as an introduction to the exhibition, but seems hardly adequate for publication in this volume.

In ‘Livia. Portrait and Propaganda’ (pp. 29-42) Rolf Winkes, an expert in this field 2, discusses the public portraiture of the first Roman empress, Livia. Starting from a marble portrait in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, which was part of the I, Claudia exhibition, he gives a clear and well-reasoned survey of Livia’s portrait types, dating the Walters head in the beginning of the reign of Tiberius. Along the way useful remarks are made about how to distinguish the various portrait types.

Diana E.E. Kleiner offers a contribution on ‘Family Ties. Mothers and Sons in Elite and Non-Elite Roman Art’ (pp. 43-60), in which she explores the ‘associative power’ (the power derived from their association with men) acquired by elite Roman women through their sons. Building on her earlier paper in I, Claudia 3 on the associative power these women wielded through their husbands, she focusses on the empresses Livia (and her son Tiberius), Agrippina Minor (and Nero), Plotina (and her adoptive son, Hadrian) and Julia Domna (and Caracalla) adding a brief discussion of some funerary reliefs portraying freedwomen and their families. Though the power these imperial women possessed through their sons is beyond doubt, Kleiner’s reasoning seems, at times, to be based more on modern notions than on a careful discussion of the ancient evidence. Thus, she calls the Ara Pacis “as much a monument to Livia as it is to Augustus” (p. 46) and ascribes a “wilful quest for freedom” (p. 54) to Petronia Hedone (who, as appears from her name, must have been a freedwoman rather than freeborn) because she erected a grave monument for herself and her son, Lucius Petronius Philemon, without any reference to a possible husband. Rather than yearning for freedom from a husband it seems to me that Petronia Hedone, who had herself depicted on the funerary relief as a stern-looking matrona, may have lost her husband through death or divorce, or, perhaps, being a former slave woman, she had conceived her son from a non-marital union.4

In ‘Just Window Dressing? Imperial Women as Architectural Sculpture’ (pp. 61-75) Mary T. Boatwright returns to a subject she has dealt with before: the imperial women of the early second century AD.5 She starts from the contention that for understanding Roman portrait sculpture it is of great importance to take into account—where possible—three different ‘contexts’: the original setting (‘physical context’), the social and historical conditions of its production (‘sociohistorical context’) and the ‘receptive context’ (how ancient viewers saw the statue). In a detailed discussion of the ‘physical context’ of statues portraying Trajan’s wife Plotina, his sister Marciana, Marciana’s daughter Matidia the Elder and Matidia’s daughter Sabina (wife of Hadrian) in four different architectural settings (the Forum of Trajan in Rome, the city gate of Perge in Pamphylia, the theatre of Vasio (Vaison-la-Romaine) in Gallia Narbonensis, and two public baths in Ostia), she draws tentative conclusions about their sociohistorical and receptive contexts. This leads her to propose a new interpretation of the possible programme of the Forum of Trajan (with the Roman family as a an important element of the Romans’ self-presentation) and of the unpretentious (perhaps local) dress of Sabina’s statue in the theatre of Vasio (symbolizing the approachability of the imperial house). Yet, I wonder whether ancient viewers were struck as much as we are by the contrast between the frivolous reputation of the baths and the stern statues of Marciana and Plotina, who were known for their chastity and reticent way of life. Nevertheless, questions of ‘receptive context’, though hard to answer—as Boatwright acknowledges—are important for a just appraisal of ancient statuary and hopefully Boatwright’s thought-provoking article will stimulate further debate.

Susan Wood’s paper on ‘Mortals, Empresses, and Earth Goddesses. Demeter and Persephone in Public and Private Apotheosis’ (pp. 77-99) centres on the rape of Persephone. The myth of the abduction of Persephone by Hades, the god of death, the quest of Demeter for her daughter and the temporary return of Persephone to the world of the living was popular in Roman art, both funerary and honorific. Wood shows how the identification of living women with Ceres came to be accepted, and even popular, because of its association with fertility and good motherhood: from Livia onwards imperial women were represented with the attributes of this goddess (poppies and corn ears). But the myth also had a special significance in funerary art. It was a popular subject for sarcophagi of both men and women because it expressed hope of victory over death and a happy after-life. If the deceased was a woman, she often was identified with the figure of Persephone by her portrait. The scene most commonly found on sarcophagi is the abduction, but Persephone is also depicted as the queen of the underworld, interceding with Hades on behalf of the deceased. Wood demonstrates how the myth of Persephone, together with that of Alcestis (who returns from the underworld) and of Protesilaos (who is released for one day on the entreaties of his wife Laodameia), conveys the notion that death can be overcome and that the love of a married couple conquers death, notions that were regarded as highly appropriate to a funerary context.

In ‘Nudity and Adornment in Female Portrait Sculpture of the Second Century AD’ (pp. 101-114) Eve D’Ambra tackles the puzzling question as to what ancient Romans thought of the nude, or semi-nude, portrait statues of Roman women represented as Venuses. In the late first and early second centuries AD these statues portray Roman women with the body of some statue type of Venus (mostly the Capitoline Venus) and a portrait head. The contrast between the nude, erotic body of Venus and the stern face of the mature, sometimes even elderly, Roman matron strikes us as odd and seems contrary to the chastity and reticence expected of Roman women. Yet, because of the funerary context of most of these statues we may assume that they were meant to honour the deceased women. Discussing in detail three such portrait statues of nude, and partially clothed, women portrayed as Venuses D’Ambra examines several explanations: the statues were seen primarily as conventional art-types denoting the fertility of the women;6 in contrast to the Greek Aphrodite the Roman Venus was a domesticated goddess of love propagating socially acceptable (marital) desires; and, lastly, the nudity of the statue should be regarded as a ‘costume’ giving the statue a semblance of divinity—like the elaborate hairstyles, it may have been considered as an adornment. The last explanation is original and has the advantage of treating the body and the head as a unity, as it may have been seen by ancient viewers despite the manifest incongruity of the combination. Yet, I cannot help finding the statues startling and I wonder whether the fact that all identifiable examples of nude ‘Venuses’ seem to be portraits of freedwomen played some role in their acceptance.

Andrew Oliver’s paper on ‘Jewelry for the Unmarried’ (pp. 115-124) discusses the rich jewelry found in the graves of unmarried girls in Rome and Italy, which contrasts strongly with the scanty jewelry (an odd pair of earrings) in the graves of older, married women. The reason for this discrepancy, he concludes, lies in the fact that unmarried girls were buried with their jewelry, which was part of their dowry, whereas the ornaments of married women were inherited by their daughters and other female relatives.

Susan B. Matheson discusses the portraits of elderly Romen women in ‘The Elder Claudia. Older Women in Roman Art’ (pp. 125-138). Starting from the question how elderly women were regarded in Roman society and portrayed in Roman art, she describes the evident signs of ageing in the portraits of the late Republican veristic style, such as bags under the eyes, drooping eyebrows, crow’s feet and sunken cheeks. These portraits of private Roman women she contrasts to the (later 7) portraits of imperial women who are presented in an idealized, youthful appearance, whatever their actual age. Matheson suggests that the fertility of imperial women—so important for dynastic continuity—was underlined by youthful idealization and that deification, or assimilation to a goddess, reinforced this tendency towards idealization. The funerary context of most portraits of private women, however, asks for a recognizable portrait expressing the dignity and traditional virtuousness of the deceased. That visible signs of ageing were part of this portrayal suggests respect for maturity—in spite of the invectives and stereotypes of the elderly in Roman comedy and satire.

The last two papers deal with Greek and Roman Egypt. In ‘Marriage Egyptian Style’ (pp. 139-147) Diana Delia briefly surveys the matrimonial property contracts made up between Greek immigrants in Egypt and their Greek, or Egyptian, wives, and includes several translated examples as an appendix. In ‘Widows Too Young in their Widowhood’ (pp. 149-165) Ann Ellis Hanson discusses the social and economic position of young widows and the likelihood of their remarriage, on the basis of the census declarations of Roman Egypt. Since these papers focus on Egypt and are based on written evidence alone (papyri) they are only loosely connected with the preceding ones; they seem to be somewhat out of place in a volume devoted to the material remains.

Claudia II is an attractive and accessible volume which again proves the importance of the material evidence for the study of ancient women. Because of the accessibility of the papers (all Greek and Latin has been translated and technical terms are mostly avoided, or explained) it will be of great use in university teaching, while offering inspiring themes to specialists in archaeology, ancient history and the history of women and gender.


1. The conventional comparison of women of imperial Rome with women of fifth-century Greece (in fact, Athens) is a bit awkward. It seems more reasonable to compare women of imperial Rome and Italy with their contemporaries in the Greek East, whose public activities—and the restrictions imposed upon them—have recently been discussed by Van Bremen, H.C. (1996) The Limits of Participation. Women and civic life in the Greek East in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, Amsterdam: Gieben.

2. See Winkes, R. (1995) Livia, Octavia, Julia, Louvain-la-Neuve and Providence (Archaeologica Transatlantica). Other recent studies in this now well-explored field are Bartman, E. (1998) Portraits of Livia. Imaging the Imperial Woman in Augustan Rome, Cambridge and Wood, S.E. (1999) Imperial Women. A Study in Public Images, 40 B.C.-A.D. 68 Leiden: Brill (Mnemosyne Supplementum 194).

3. Kleiner, D.E.E., ‘Imperial Women as Patrons of the Arts in the Early Empire’, in Kleiner, D.E.E and Matheson, S.B. (eds) (1996) I, Claudia. Women in Ancient Rome, New Haven pp. 28-41.

4. Another shortcoming is Kleiner’s surprisingly uncritical attitude as regards the literary sources: for instance, she follows Suetonius ( Tib. 50) in believing personal animosity to be Tiberius’s prime motive for vetoing the title parens patriae offered to Livia by the senate (p. 44) whereas it seems more likely that reasons of public policy lay behind this decision (see, for instance, Winkes on p. 34 of the present volume). She also gives no grounds for her assertion that the origin of the reported power of Claudius’s wives and freedmen (Suet. Claud. 29) lay in Livia’s and Antonia’s disdain for him and she does not seriously question the story that Agrippina Minor murdered Claudius by poisoning his favourite mushrooms (p. 44; from Suetonius Claud. 44). For a well-balanced discussion of the last-mentioned question, see Barrett, A.A. (1996) Agrippina. Mother of Nero, London: Batsford pp. 138-42, a book not mentioned by Kleiner.

5. See Boatwright, M.T. (1991) ‘The imperial women of the early second century A.C.’, AJPh 112: 513-540 and Boatwright, M.T. (1992) ‘Matidia the Younger’, EMC/CV 36, n.s. 11: 19-32.

6. For this explanation see also her earlier article on the subject: D’Ambra, E. (1996) ‘The Calculus of Venus: Nude Portraits of Roman Matrons’, in Kampen, N. B. (ed.) Sexuality in Ancient Art, Cambridge pp. 219-232.

7. Unfortunately, Matheson pays no attention to a possible chronological development.